Präfiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos by Hans Blumenberg (review)
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Reviewed by
Hans Blumenberg, Präfiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos ( Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014), 147 pp.

According to those rooting around in Blumenberg’s Nachlass, Präfiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos is likely the “missing chapter” to his great Work on Myth (1979) that, in an exchange of letters in 1981 with a reviewer, Blumenberg referred to under the name “Stalingrad as Mythical Consequence.” That exchange of letters is included in Präfiguration. At least one person privileged to have knowledge of Blumenberg’s Nachlass, Angus Nicholls, claims, however, that “there is no text in the Nachlass that carries [that] title.” The text that does deal with the mythical dimensions of Hitler’s decision to invade Stalingrad is, Nicholls says, the Präfiguration essay now published but titled in the Nachlass as “AMY II, Mythological Minora, Präfiguration: Napoleon und Hitler / Napoleon und Alexander.” Knowing the title is important, in part because the normative exemplum for grand and gross ethical and political misconduct for many in the West is Hitler, while for Blumenberg it was Napoleon. The Little Corporal preoccupied Blumenberg more and more, causing him to think less about Hitler. Part of what upset Blumenberg about Napoleon was the cheapness [die Billigkeit] of Napoleon’s ideas. Blumenberg found it horrifying that another such “dilettante” would not be preventable.

Prefiguration is a form of thought from the world of myth, but it is still (or again) virulent. As Althusser noted, prophecies can have causal effects. Prefiguration, which shares a frontier with magical thinking, involves the foretelling or expectation of present and future effects of narratives written down sometimes thousands of years before. Prefiguration is about the constancy of conditions or, rather, the wish for constancy. Prefiguration overcomes confusion, helplessness; in extreme circumstances, it can lend historic decisions legitimacy. Blumenberg’s evidence is extensive. One salient example is from the Yom Kippur War, when Arabs chose the date to attack based on a key moment in Islamic history. The Syrians and Egyptians named their operation “Badr” after the Prophet Mohammed’s first victorious battle. But the audience for prefiguration must be able to recognize what expectation is being fulfilled. As Blumenberg puts it, prefiguration exists in a system designed for justification and, if exercised properly, can function in a Janus-faced manner, meaning that it is a form of thought that can insulate itself against failure. A prophecy can possess built-in protective qualities. If ancient Rome becomes the paradigm for a proposed military action and the army involved fails, the prophet or propagandist, as justification for mounting further battles, might then invoke the Punic wars (as indeed Goebbels did). As Blumenberg phrases the point: prefiguration, however adaptive it may be, locates events in a “zone of unquestionableness.”

A chief figure in Blumenberg’s “missing chapter” is Frederick the Great, [End Page 531] who provided posthumous motivation for numerous actions taken by the National Socialists. A member of Hitler’s inner circle described him as a “young Friedrich the Great.” Goebbels was reading Carlyle’s book on Frederick and told Hitler about it, then brought a copy to him in the bunker. In 1945, Hitler and Goebbels were thinking about parallels between the Punic Wars and the Seven Years’ War in connection with what was then happening in Russia, conjuring hope out of histories of defeat. A last glimmer of hope arrived when Franklin Roosevelt died: Hitler mapped onto that death the passing of Tsarina Elisabeth in Frederick’s time. In the concluding section of Präfiguration, which lays out the case for the Frederick II–Hitler nexus, Blumenberg tells us of Hitler’s obsession with the precious Anton Graff portrait of Frederick that Hitler kept with him in the bunker. When, as circumstances worsened, Hitler was destroying everything in sight, he preserved the Frederick portrait by making sure it was in the hands of Hans Baur, whom he expected to leave the bunker alive. Whatever else happened, Frederick had to live on. Blumenberg’s citation of Sirach 30.4 is explanatory: “Though his father die, yet he is as though he were not dead: for he hath left one behind him that is like himself.” [End Page 532...